Day 5 (1/3).
Leaving Shitetoko behind, we drove southwest towards another natural marvel of Eastern Hokkaido, the Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園). On the lush green plains, stratovolcanoes emerged from the horizon, revealing the violent past of the local geology. Hot springs, crater lakes, and stratovolcanoes define the characteristics of the area, and have led to the creation of the national park in 1934. Just 15 minutes of drive from the Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu (摩周湖), we checked in at Masyuko Youth Hostel (摩周湖ユースホステル). That night, we woke up at 2:30am and drove to the Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu to watch the sunrise, a famous scenic sight in Hokkaido. In the summer, the sun rises at around 3:30am in Hokkaido, leaving us little time for sleep.
On our way to Akan Mashu National Park , we could see stratovolcanoes rose from the horizon in a distance.
Masyuko Youth Hostel offered us a comfortable place for a short rest before venturing out again to watch the sunrise.
Arriving at Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu, we were stunned to see a sea of clouds blanketed over the area of Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉).
Looking down from Viewing Platform 1, the water of Lake Mashu appeared like a crystal clear mirror.
Claimed as the clearest lake in the world (with transparency measured at 41.6m back in 1931), Lake Mashu is a beautiful crater lake where visitors can enjoy the scenery from two viewing platforms along the crater rim. The clarity might have slightly declined in recent decades, but Lake Mashu is still nevertheless an extremely beautiful water body.
Occasionally sea of clouds would appear over Lake Mashu, but not during our visit.
Soon the sun emerged behind the distant mountains to the east.
We enjoyed moments of tranquility at the viewing platform.
Several tourists and photographers stood among us at the viewing platform to watch the sunrise.
While the sun gradually rose over the crater lake, the moon still lingered in the sky behind us.
When the sun was up, the blue water and lush green surroundings changed the ambience of Lake Mashu into a different picture.
The deep blue Mashu Lake looked mysterious and surreal, almost too beautiful to be true.
The rim of the crater lake is now covered by dense vegetation.
On the other side, clouds and fog continued to cover the foot of Mount Iō (アトサヌプリ) and the Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) area.
The entire Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) area was blanked in thick fog.
Over to the southwest we could see the stratovolcanoes near what could be the Lake Akan area.
Down in Lake Mashu, the small island stood like a feature sculpture at the centre.
The sea of clouds at Mount Iō (アトサヌプリ) and Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) subsided a little as the sun rose further up.
Moisture and thin mist emerged over the water of Lake Mashu. The mist moved rapidly over the water as if dancing. At one point thicker mist gathered over the small island like a cotton shield.
The mist over the island soon dispersed into thin air. As the sun reached high in the sky, we returned to the hostel for another few hours of sleep before coming back to Lake Mashu for hiking later in the day.
Day 4 (1/2).
It was the fourth day since we arrived in Shiretoko. Finally we woke up to a fine morning. Clouds gathered atop the Shiretoko Mountain Range northwest of Rausu. We had made reservations for an afternoon whale watching cruise. Our plan for the morning was to head up to Shiretoko Pass, and do a bit of hiking near Rausu Lake. It would be quite unfortunate if we were to leave Shiretoko without seeing Mount Rausu (羅臼岳).
At 1661m in height, Mount Rausu is an active stratovolcano that sits above Shiretoko Pass, the highest point on Road 334 between the villages of Utoro and Rausu. Also known as the Fuji of Shiretoko, Mount Rausu is one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Hiking up the volcano takes 6-8 hours round trip, but given our limited time and lack of snow crampons, we would have to leave the hike for another time.
Driving Road 334 up to Shiretoko Pass, we could see the mountains were still covered in clouds.
On our way up, we passed by several covered road sections.
It was a disappointment again when we arrived at Shiretoko Pass (知床峠) and saw Mount Rausu covered in thick clouds.
Though the weather looked quite promising down at coast of Rausu. We hoped that the fine weather would stay for several more hours so that we could embark on our whale watching cruise in the afternoon.
It was 2.3km from Shiretoko Pass to the trailhead of Lake Rausu Trail. About five minutes after we walked down the road from the parking lot of Shiretoko Pass, the clouds began to disperse over Mount Rausu. We could finally see the beautiful volcano right behind us.
Some hikers would prefer taking the bus to cover the 2.3km journey to the trailhead, but there are only four buses per day on the route.
Looking down from the trailhead, the trail began at a marsh area.
We followed a narrow path down to the trailhead of Rausu Lake Trail.
The return trip of Rausu Lake Trail would take about 3-4 hours. Unfortunately our time was restricted by the afternoon whale watching cruise. We decided to do a shorter hike by turning back at Marsh 3.
As warned at the trailhead, the early section of the Rausu Lake Trail was flooded like a swamp. Rubber boots could be rented at the Rausu Visitor Centre.
We soon reached Marsh 2 after a short walk in the flooded path, but there wasn’t much water in the marsh.
Snow was still visible at certain parts of the trail.
After about half an hour from the trailhead, we reached Marsh 3, the destination of our short hike.
Mount Rausu and its reflection at Marsh 3 was the biggest highlight of the hike. While most hikers would continue on towards Rausu Lake, we had to turn back in order to make back to Rausu on time for our whale watching cruise.
Back to Shiretoko Pass, more clouds were visible over Nemuro Strait and the Russian controlled Kunashir Island. We were a little worried about the overcast conditions ahead of our whale watching cruise. After 2.5 days of rainy weather, even few patches of clouds would make us nervous.
The sky wasn’t as clear as the morning when we arrived at Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖). In our Nikko day trip from Tokyo, Lake Chuzenji was our last destination of the day. The scenery of Lake Chuzenji is dominated by the magnificent Mount Nantai (男体山 or 二荒山), an active stratovolcano that had erupted 7000 years ago. If visiting in the autumn, we can take the Tobu bus up to the lookout of Mount Hangetsuyama (半月山) to enjoy a fantastic view of the conical volcano and its perfection reflection in the lake. Since the bus only operates in the autumn months and we didn’t want to hire a car just for the lookout, we decided to enjoy Lake Chuzenji by doing a short walk along the southeastern shore to the former British and Italian Embassies.
From the bus station, it was only a five minute walk to the shore of Lake Chuzenji.
We walked along the southeastern shore of Lake Chuzenji and passed by many swan pedal boats.
Soon we reached the entrance of Chuzenji Temple (中禅寺), the Buddhist temple that gave the name to Lake Chuzenji.
Another short walk from Chuzenji Temple brought us to our destination of the afternoon, the former Italian Embassy. Designed by American architect Antonin Raymond, the villa was built in 1928 as the summer villa for the Italian Embassy in the past. Antonin Raymond cladded the entire building with Japanese cedar bark, a local material from the area.
Today, the building becomes a museum for the public.
The Viewing Hallway on the ground level allowed a magnificent panorama view of the lake.
There are three bedrooms on the upper floor. The decor is simple and elegant.
After touring the Italian Embassy Villa, we walked down to the landscaped area by the shore.
A timber jetty outside the Italian Embassy Villa brought us closer to the lake.
From the jetty, we could see the sacred Mount Nantai (男体山 or 二荒山). The lake was extremely peaceful with super clear water.
We walked back towards the starting point of our short walk. Soon, we reached the jetty of another old western villa, the former British Embassy Villa.
Similar to the Italian Embassy Villa, maximizing the panoramic views of the lake seemed to be the main concept of the house design.
The viewing hallway of the British Embassy Villa was equally impressive with the beautiful scenery of the lake.
After the embassy villas, we walked slowly back to the village of Chuzenji where we got off the bus.
We were way too early to see the fall colours, but instead we saw some beautiful flowers along the way.
We also saw several people recreational fishing in the lake.
Back to Nikko town, we still had about an hour’s time before our train departed for Tokyo. We dropped by Komekichi Kozushi, a small sushi restaurant just a stone throw from the train station, for a quick and decent dinner.
The father and son owners of Komekichi Kozushi were quite serious about the correct way to eat sushi. The food was very delicious and we highly recommend Komekichi Kozushi to any Nikko visitor.
After dinner, the sky was getting dark, and we could see the dramatic silhouette of Mount Nantai backed with vivid skies.
As we stepped into Nikko Tobu Railway Station, our one-day visit of Nikko was coming to an end. We hopped on the limited express train for Asakusa Tokyo.